Quebecois Literature and American Literature

Jean Morency

(Translation: Jo-Anne Elder)

Since its settlement in New France, the French-speaking population of Canada has maintained a close but ambiguous relationship with other, English-speaking population groups on the American continent. These relations have been characterized not only by feelings of intense attraction, especially among the working class and lower classes of society, but also by a certain distrust that may be gleaned in the discourse of the elite, as the work of historians Gerard Bouchard (2000), Yvan Lamonde (2001), and Paul-Andre Linteau (2000) show. Their studies reveal the similarities between Quebecois and other New World communities on the continent, as well as the numerous links that connect the Quebecois and American cultures. In the same way, the close resemblance between the Quebecois literary imagination and its American counterpart has been explored in research on the myth of America (Morency 1994) and on the "interieurs du Nouveau Monde" (interiors of the New World).1 Despite the clear profile we have of these tendencies, there remains, however, a lack of detailed analysis of the ways in which Quebecois writers have become aware of and in some cases familiar with American literature and have drawn inspiration from it.

The discourse on the "Americanness"2 of Quebecois culture, which occupies an important place in research on Quebec, has too often ignored the actual knowledge Quebecois writers might have of American literature and its writers. Even in the field of literature, the idea of "Americanness" is generally relegated to reflections that are more sociological than literary. For example, the Americanness of literary works is often calculated on the basis of referential parameters such as space, movement, the city, and society, rather than on considerations of literary influences, the borrowing of specific literary forms, or the use of American intertexts. This is true despite the fact that, since the nineteenth century, a number of Quebecois writers have been in close contact with American writers—for instance, Pamphile Le May, translator of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or fimile Nelligan, devoted reader of the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. In the first decades of the twentieth century, American literature was already an institution and could boast of significant masterpieces. Although it was still not very well known in French Canada, it had attracted the attention of writers such as Paul Morin and Harry Bernard, who had written theses on Longfellow's poetry and American regional fiction, respectively.

As a result, even if Anglo-American culture has often been depicted as a threat to the survival of the French Canadian nationality—at least in the discourse of the intellectual and clerical elite, who were worried about the mass exodus of their population to the United States and by the sociocultural attraction of the giant next door—many Quebecois writers chose to ignore this conventional view and rather read and reflected on the literature produced south of the border. In this chapter, I will outline three significant moments of discovery of American literature in Quebec: first, the nineteenth century, the period of early discovery; second, the first half of the twentieth century, which saw not only a growing awareness of the progressive Americanization of French Canada, but also a much more accurate perception of American literature; third, the second half of the twentieth century, in which this phenomenon becomes much more pervasive, particularly between 1970 and 2000, a period characterized by the reemergence of references to American life (especially in Quebecois novels, many of them partly set in the United States) and even more so to American literature. While the first two periods are defined by efforts to become more familiar with the literature of the southern neighbor (either through translation or through research and writing), the third period is characterized by a clear desire to integrate this literature into a Quebecois context, as we will see later.

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